Discordant Living

What we can learn about home life from Anna Karenina

When Bilbo thought of home during his wilderness journeys in The Hobbit, we know he pictured steaming pots, warm blankets, and perhaps a pipe and pint at a crowded table. Tolkien's Shire shines in the imagination as a simple but wholesome image of home. We long for such a haven amidst the storms of the world. But what about those whose lives at home are stormier than anything they can imagine outside?

In spite of our dreams of domestic bliss, real family is often dysfunctional. I look back on my childhood years in a family of five children as a period filled with at least as much discord as communion. Speaking with young married friends of mine, I have recently been learning how many ordinary marriages sputter along with wells of pain beneath the surface.

Home is the place where you can't escape the people whom you wound, and who in turn wound you. There is a special kind of pain that comes when you see your own brokenness mirrored in another's brokenness, and realize that you can't look away. Of course, people try to look away - through busyness, absence, moving, or divorce. But these are never real solutions. If you close your eyes at home, how will you learn to see anywhere else?

It would seem that discord is an inevitable part of home this side of heaven. If you ever hope to know home as a haven, you must first learn to weather the tempests inside your home and even grow through them. Anna Karenina,((Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.)) Tolstoy's novel about messy relationships, suggests that in order to navigate home life, you need a better way of seeing both the home environment and the people who inhabit it with you. The secret to domestic peace is not better communication skills, but new eyes.

Tolstoy describes Anna's downfall with a metaphor of failing sight. Early on, as she agonizes over leaving her husband and son for Vronsky, she feels that "everything was beginning to go double in her soul, as an object sometimes goes double in tired eyes" (288). By the end, as she and Vronsky grow steadily colder toward one another, her vision is subsumed by cynicism, in which she believes that she has seen through the falseness of all human loves. Anna "saw it clearly in that piercing light which now revealed to her the meaning of life and of people's relations. . . . Aren't we all thrown into the world only in order to hate each other and so to torment ourselves and others" (763-64).

The marriage of Kitty and Levin, a foil to Anna's illicit relationship, is punctuated by regular quarrels and fits of anger and jealousy. And yet their turmoil always subsides into happy communion. Early in their marriage, both Kitty and Levin learn what it means to see through one another's eyes. On the day of his proposal, Levin tells Kitty his theory that

"...sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superfluous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what you yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing."

Throughout the novel, Levin is gradually discovering a way of interpreting his marriage and the world that is truer and fuller than the light of dispassionate reason. In stormy arguments—when newlywed Kitty is angry that her husband is home late, or when Levin becomes hopelessly jealous of a male visitor—the argument ends when each suddenly recognizes what is important to the other person and accepts the other's way of feeling and seeing.

Kitty and Levin are developing humility. During the tumultuous period before and immediately after their marriage, both are reshaping their expectations of love and home life. Levin notes with surprise that he is continually finding "disenchantment with his old dream and a new, unexpected enchantment" (481). His wife's housekeeping and his own care of his lands, entertaining guests and caring for the new baby, their quarrels and resolutions: the prosaic details that make up domestic life bring a strange new satisfaction for the intellectual Levin. Levin observes that his home life is "formed entirely of those insignificant trifles he had scorned so much before, but which now, against his will, acquired an extraordinary and irrefutable significance" (480).

Fascinating though it is, Anna's passionate pride and thirst for excitement cannot sustain a relationship. Harmonious family life, on the other hand, looks boring to an outsider. As the novel's opening foretells, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Those who hunt for excitement and novelty pay for it with unhappiness; but happy families know how to see beauty in the shared rhythms of everyday life.

For the troubled souls of our world who are tempted to despair of ever finding community, Anna Karenina offers hope that deep human communion is possible. But it also sounds a warning in the form of Anna's fatal cynicism, which spreads out from her intimate relationship and infects her whole life. A home offers a miniature slice of the variety we find in the wider world, with a mixture of genders, personality types, and generations gathered in close quarters. If meaningful human connections are to be possible anywhere, we must first believe they are possible at home and start working to build them with the people we can't escape—with children, siblings, spouses, and in-laws. Once our home life has become a constant exercise in re-envisioning, then perhaps we will find that we have re-enchanted not only our homes but also all of our human interactions.

What do you think of this article?

Write a short response. It'll get sent to our symposium editors and, if approved, added to the symposium. People who read this article will see your response immediately following, and we'll promote your contribution individually to the John Jay Institute's network.


Image above from Flickr user milton.guerrero via Flickr Creative Commons license. Image used for identification purposes.